World Cinema - France, November 2015

Michael Rowan, a member of Chiltern Film Society's committee, is finding out about how people from different countries experienced cinema in their homeland.

With one exception I have only ever visited the cinema in the UK and had always assumed that mine was a universal experience. One day a chance conversation made me wonder if perhaps I was being naïve and so I set myself the challenge to find out what people living in Chesham but born in another country recalled about cinema in their homeland. I am very grateful to everyone who gave up their time to give me such an insight often reviving memories that they had forgotten.


I was thinking of calling this interview the French Connection and you will see why if you read more of my interview with my latest interviewee, Caroline Darmon.

Today I am speaking to Caroline Darmon who came to Chesham in January 2012 but is originally from Troyes in the south of the Champagne region of France. The big brands, she tells me, are made in the north, ‘but they use the grapes from the south,’ Many of the streets of Troyes are constructed from pebble streets and the town centre is designed in the shape of a champagne cork.

Troyes is about 2 hours from Paris and must have felt a long way from home when Caroline first came to England as an au pair living and working in Barnet. Surely this is a potential script for a romantic French film?

Wonderfully discreet, Caroline says that her experience as an au pair could have been better but could also have been worse. However it was here that she became friends with Deborah, another French girl also working as an au pair. Caroline got a place at university in Paris but couldn’t find any affordable accommodation. Bemoaning this fact in a telephone conversation to Deborah, her friend cane to the rescue by telling her that her brother Gerald had just found somewhere in Paris and that he was looking for someone to share the rent. A few months after she moved in, Gerald returned to the flat with some flowers and the rest, you could say is history. In search of work as an architect for Gerald, they both moved to Manchester in 2003 with all their possessions packed into two big rucksacks. They found rooms in a house owned by a lesbian landlady called Lulu and lived with her for a year. (See I told you that it would make a great film.)

The regeneration of Manchester saw a lot of opportunities for architects but when the boom was over Gerald along with many others, was made redundant and sought work in London. Fortunately Caroline was able to get work as an office administrator so relocation was less of an issue for her.

In 2012 Gerald’s sister was living in Chesham so when a rental property in Rickmansworth fell through they looked in Chesham and are still live in the same house they saw when they first arrived.

Today Caroline is a full time Mum of a girl of 7 and boy of 5 but helps her sister-in-law with a market stall selling French Patisseries; her hobbies include reading, cooking and of course watching films.

1) How does the cinema here differ from that in France?

Caroline - When I was little we had three cinemas which were named Paris, Le Alhambra and Alpha. Two were  in the main street but now sadly they are all shops and an out of town multiplex has taken over (Plus ca change, as they say)

I just remember them as small enclosed spaces with a narrow entrance and of course they always seemed to be dark, like we were entering into a secret world.

2) What is your first memory of going to the cinema as a child?

Caroline - My step mum took me to see ET at the cinema and I was so enthralled that I cried at the end. A few weeks later I was taken by my step mum to visit one of her friends who had just had a baby. I was asked what I thought of the new arrival but when I told them it looked just like ET the new mother burst into tears. I think they thought that I was suggesting the baby was ugly but to me ET was beautiful and it was intended as a compliment.

I can also remember loving Gremlins but at the same time being very scared.

3) What was the first film that you recall seeing?

Caroline - I can remember being terrified of the Wicked Queen in Walt Disney’s Snow White when I had been taken there as a family treat.

4) How expensive was it to visit the cinema?

Caroline – I cannot really remember but I expect that it was on a par with the UK. I do remember that when you paid you were handed a little strip of tickets and I kept these as part of my collection. You know how little girls like to collect everything.

5) What is the etiquette in the cinema in France?

Caroline - Before the film started a banner would be rolled down on which was printed adverts for all the local shops. After a few minutes the banner would be rolled back up and then adverts for the up - coming films were played followed by the children’s cartoon. All this before the main film started.

I assume that there was a lot of smoking because everyone did in those days, but I wouldn’t be aware of it.

6) When I was a child the only food eaten in the cinema was tubs of ice cream or choc ice, Orange Juice and hot dogs. What kind of food could you buy at the cinema?

Caroline - As teenagers we bought lots of sweets and mixed them up and shared them amongst us, but when the three cinemas closed down we couldn’t go anymore as it was too far to travel to the new multiplex out of town.

We bought our food from women who wore cute uniforms a bit like air hostesses, and they wore a little hat to keep the hair back which was very chic. However the most impressive was the large willow baskets which were supported by ribbons tied around their neck. In the basket would be confectionary, popcorn and ice cream and probably cigarettes for the adults.

7) What sort of films were shown in France? Was it the usual blockbuster? Walt Disney or something else?

Caroline - Well certainly Walt Disney because I saw Snow White and of course there was a vibrant French Cinema, so a lot of French Films.  We also had a lot of American films dubbed in to French, but the voices never sounded right.  There was a strong French sense of identity in the films shown so I suppose it would have been 50:50 American to French but very few if any British films.

Nowadays there is a law to retain the French culture so there are regulated quotas. For instance on the radio they have to play twice as much French music as say American.

I am a great Jean Paul Belmondo fan and like him still, apparently he is making a new film despite his age and I can’t wait.

I also like to watch French films with my children. We like old French classic romantic films because they are less frenetic and more languid and we watch them together as a treat.

Apologies in advance but I can’t resist a French Connection reference-

Caroline told me that her husband, Gerald’s grandfather was Algerian and was friends with Simon Lelouch, the famous film director; he told the story of how when they moved to France the young Simon stood in a room totally mesmerised by a television and often wondered if this was the moment that led him to film making.

8) Do you go to the cinema in UK – what were your first impressions?

Caroline - I went with my friend when we were working as au pairs to see a British film starring Hugh Grant and we thought that this was the real England and that it would be just like the movies with art imitating life.  Life in Barnet quickly disproved this particular myth.

9) We have certain films that are shown every Christmas, is that the same in your country and if so what ?

Caroline – For me it is always Tatie Danielle meaning auntie Danielle and is played by Tsilla Chelton. It is a comedy about a selfish appalling woman who only eats cake and who ends up been looked after by an unsympathetic carer whilst her extended family are on holiday.

Some Like it Hot also seems to be on every Christmas both in French and American English.

10) And what film character would you like to be?

Caroline – As a child I would have to say Cinderella in the Walt Disney film but as an adult it would be Anouk Aimee who played the romantic lead in the film Un Homme et une Femme, which is  a classic film with beautiful music.

11) Finally what is your favourite film?

Caroline - It’s so difficult to choose and as I do like comedies there is a fantastic one called Starbuck that everyone should see. It’s about a sperm donor who, as a result, has lots of his children looking for him. It is in French but has been remade in English.

Les dieux sont tombes sur la tete or 'The Gods must be crazy' is an African comedy and I recall that as a child I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe, but I haven’t seen it since a child so it may not have dated well.

My all time favourite is Zouzou which is about a widowed grandmother who has met someone new at the same time her granddaughter is about to embark on her first sexual relationship. This is a moving and thoughtful film which I have seen several times.

Caroline Darmon thank you for sharing your experience of cinema